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Mental Health

Tabletop Games & the Mental Health of Generations

Tabletop games have in fact been used to help people suffering with mental illness. This isn’t a recent development, as a matter of fact I managed to dig up a case study from 26 years ago. It’s a lovely overview of a young man’s journey through therapy, with the assistance of D&D. Using it as a means of forming social support, but also as a safe outlet for his feelings, he was able to build his confidence and emotional intelligence.


As we grow up however, we might begin to see through the ruse of a therapist plying us with a board game to engage with them. In this case, how do you persuade an adult that tabletop games can in fact help them?

top view photo of men playing board games
Top View Photo Of Men Playing Board Game; Tope A. Asokere

A master’s thesis titled: “Exploring mental dungeons and slaying psychic dragons: an exploratory study” [3], which took inspiration from the case study mentioned right at the start, delves into the impact of pen and paper RPGs on the mental health of adults. There are two reasons why I am focusing on the impact of pen and paper RPGs within this demographic: (a) I couldn’t find any substantial research into the impact of board games on adult mental health, and (b) pen and paper games are seeing a massive rise in interest amongst adults.

You wouldn’t believe the list of ways in which adults said their lives were improved by a simple piece of paper and some dice. They named things such as forming new relationships, which even became their core support groups, ranging to things as big as unpacking past traumas and exploring personal identities.

The truth is once you’re engaged with a game like Dungeons and Dragons you’re not only engaging with the people around the table, you become part of a wider community. True there are always a few people who make the space uncomfortable, but widely speaking what a wonderful community it is. It provides a space for people to openly express LGBTQIA+ identities in the characters they play, it allows in depth roleplay of past traumas and even provides resolutions. It’s a safe space.

Once you being to think about it more it makes sense that this would be cathartic. Adult life is fraught with social interaction that’s dictated by various unsaid codes, mundane activities, and intolerable ass hats who you can’t do anything about. Then you’re suddenly a bird person who can cast fireballs, goes on adventures to slay dragons, and who can stab the first fool to cross them.

Not only that, it’s structured. There’s a facilitator who, if they’re doing their job correctly, will make sure the game is a safe space. For someone with anxiety this can be revolutionary, and for someone with an autistic spectrum disorder this means there is finally a hobby that works with their need for boundaries and rational progression.

chess table top board game
Chess Piece; Pixabay

It almost sounds too good to be true, but it is. A game about wizards and knights ultimately helps people carve out a chunk of time to build their social skills, spend more time with people they like, and potentially creates a safe enough environment where they can be who they want to be. This would improve anyone’s mental health, and once you being to look at it from the perspectives of individuals who live with mental illness: it’s revolutionary.


Some may think this is a good place to end my blathering, but there’s an important demographic whose mental health often gets neglected when it comes to discussing the effect of gaming: the elderly. Equally, it’s easy to exclude conditions such as dementia from the discussion surrounding mental health altogether.

mental health generations
Grandmother and Grandfather Holding Child on Their Lap; Pixabay

In a sample of 3675 French elders, of whom 32.2% regularly played board games, the long-term risk of developing dementia was 15% lower in the group who played board games, not to mention a decreased risk of incident depression. The study went as far as observing a lower risk of death (Dartigues, J., Foubert-Samier, A., Le Goff, M., Viltard, M., Amieva, H., Orgogozo, J., Barberger-Gateau, P. and Helmer, C. (2013).).

Considering the accessibility of board games, even to those with restricted mobility, there is no downside to promoting tabletop gaming amongst the elderly. It is an activity that would be easy to implement in retirement homes, as well as in households.

The same principle underpinned a separated study of Making Memories together, a therapeutic game designed for individuals with Alzheimer’s. The focus in this case wasn’t on curing or preventing Alzheimer’s, it was about improving quality of life. Family members, who previously found it difficult or frightening to visit, found themselves enjoying the time they were spending with their relatives;

“when the time for the experimental intervention was up, most of the families did not want to stop playing the game; often it would continue for at least another half hour”

Cohen GD, Firth KM, Biddle S, et al.

How heart-warming is it that something as simple as a board game can bring families together in the most difficult of circumstances. And imagine the relief of the individuals suffering from the condition; they may spend a large amount of time in a confused stupor, but suddenly, these kind people who you may sometimes remember to be your family, are spending time with you and making you smile. It’s wonderful.

seniors playing tabletop game
Men Playing; Şahin Sezer Dinçer

If you put this far that’s very kind of you considering this is my first article, but you still may be thinking why write about such a niche topic? The truth is: because I really wanted to. Both topics are very dear to my heart; I spent a lot of time playing tabletop games, and a profoundly larger amount of time struggling with my mental health. However, on a much deeper level, mental health is something we need to start looking at from unique directions. Not everyone has access to therapy or medication or even a doctor to be perfectly honest, but most people have access to a deck of cards or a chess board.

We can all take small steps to make our life better and not all those steps have to be unpleasant, sometimes they can involve sitting down with a mate and playing a game.

I could spend hours talking and writing about this topic, but I hope this small primer has done the job succinctly enough. Thanks for sticking with me. Keep an eye out for more.

-Weronika


References

[1] Blackmon, W. D. (1994) ‘Dungeons and Dragons: the use of a fantasy game in the psychotherapeutic treatment of a young adult’, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 48, pp. 624–632. Available at: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=ssf&AN=510112703&site=ehost-live (Accessed: 4 November 2019).

[2] Streng, I. (2009). Using therapeutic board games to promote child mental health. Journal of Public Mental Health, 7(4), pp.4-16.

[3] Sargent, Michael S., “Exploring mental dungeons and slaying psychic dragons : an exploratory study” (2014). Theses, Dissertations, and Projects. 837. https://scholarworks.smith.edu/theses/837

[4] Dartigues, J., Foubert-Samier, A., Le Goff, M., Viltard, M., Amieva, H., Orgogozo, J., Barberger-Gateau, P. and Helmer, C. (2013). Playing board games, cognitive decline and dementia: a French population-based cohort study. BMJ Open, 3(8), p.e002998.

[5] Cohen GD, Firth KM, Biddle S, et al. The first therapeutic game specifically designed and evaluated for Alzheimer’s disease. Am J Alzheimers Dis Other Demen 2008;23:540–51.

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